‘BRAYCE’ Yourself for a Cultural Exchange with Students from Brazil
Can two weeks change a life? If you ask Brazilian students who have experienced a once-in-a-lifetime exchange program in the tri-town area thanks to Brazilian and American Youth Cultural Exchange (BRAYCE), and the families who have hosted them, the answer is “sim,” or “yes” in Portuguese (the main language spoken in Brazil). This summer, four students will spend one week at Camp Hazen YMCA, and one week experiencing American culture with host families, working on improving their language skills while sharing their culture. The students are Claudio Cardoso, Marcos Silva, Franciell Sousa, and Dandara Amaral. Ranging in age from 14 to 16, these students are eager to learn as much as they can while here.
BRAYCE was started by Chester resident Margot Calder, and her late husband Richard H. Calder in 2005. The organization’s aims are well-summarized with the tagline “building bridges of opportunity,” and it strives to provide intercultural exchanges that facilitate both leadership and educational opportunities for marginalized Brazilian youth. While this used to involve sending college-aged American students to volunteer and teach English in Brazil, this year the focus has been shifted to place an emphasis on bringing high school-aged Brazilian students from favelas—historically poorer communities where students have less access to resources and opportunities—to the U.S. for an immersive exchange experience.
“It’s a big opportunity to upgrade my English, and learn other activities, like belaying, and survival skills, I’ve never done anything like that,” said Cardoso.
“It’s the best way to improve my English and make new friends,” said Silva, with Amaral adding, “It’s very special, you meet people from a new culture, it’s incredible.”
While Cardoso, Silva, and Amaral had not had prior experience with BRAYCE, this is Sousa’s second year in the program. Last year she attended Camp Hazen as a camper; this year she is in the “LEA” program, a leadership training course where they learn skills for both working with campers and for becoming leaders among their peers.
“We always try to take care of the others, work with children,” said Silva. “I’m learning how to treat others, how my actions can affect people, how to help people and solve problems. They ask about Portuguese, how to say different words. It’s really cool that I learn about them, they learn about me.”
Language sharing is a big part of the camp, which has both an international staff and international camper enrollment. But beyond trading words, the students are focused on the lessons they can take home with them, and share with their peers in Brazil.
“I’m learning to be responsible, to be friendly, and to take care of a group,” said Amaral.
“I’m going to teach friends what I have learned here, about unity,” said Cardoso, referencing one of the pillars of Camp Hazen’s philosophy, the others being responsibility, respect, caring, and honesty, along with respect for the environment.
“I’ve been here two years so I can give others knowledge of my experience,” said Sousa. “I can volunteer in English classes and help them. At camp you have a lot of freedom and responsibility. You’re always working towards being a counselor, you have classes about different kids and how to treat them, how to get them involved, how to make them comfortable, help make things better.”
For founder Margot Calder, the difference between their lives during their immersion experience and what BRAYCE has supported for students in the past experience at home is like stepping in two different worlds.
“Here it is very calm, and tranquil,” said Calder. “For a lot of our students, growing up in the favelas, life is very dangerous.”
The students confirmed Calder’s statement, noting that the level of danger in their lives in Brazil placed significant limits on what they can do or experience.
“Here we can walk freely, we are free,” said Cardoso. “In Brazil we can only go from school to home.”
“School is from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.,” added Sousa. “It’s just sleep and go to school.”
Amaral also noted that there is far more organization here: “When we have food, everything is very organized. Everyone is at the table, everyone shares. I like it.”
Camp itself is also an experience that to these students seems straight out of a movie or a book, with experiences that would be prohibitively expensive.
“It’s so beautiful here,” said Amaral. “When we heard where we would be going in the U.S. – no one knows where Connecticut is.”
“We don’t have camp in Brazil, so we think of something like Camp Rock [a reference to a Disney Channel Original Movie], this doesn’t exist,” said Sousa. “Here feels like Camp Rock, like being in a film, or like High School Musical [another Disney Channel Original Movie].”
“I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” added Silva. “One of them was about camp – I thought it didn’t exist, but I’m here.”
“I saw the lake and thought, ‘Oh my God,’” said Cardoso. “We go to the beach in Brazil but I never saw a lake as big as this [referring to Cedar Lake]. I like to swim, it’s a hobby.”
“I really like paddling [kayaking and canoeing],” said Amaral. “It’s expensive to do this in Brazil.”
The little glimpses of what stands out as different between Brazil and the Connecticut River valley paint a picture of a very different life than most people here know, something that stood out to Valley Regional High School student Sam Paulson, who, along with parents Michelle and Scott Paulson, are hosting one of the students the week after camp ends.
“The exchange is important because it helps you see how different two places are,” said Sam. “I’m excited to share my experiences here, and learn how teens live in Brazil.”
Patrick Myslik and his parents Karen Kaestle and Jim Myslik are another one of the local host families. Patrick is also eager to learn about the differences between Connecticut and Brazil.
“This community isn’t really diverse,” noted Patrick. “It’s important to be exposed to other cultures.”
Language exchange is the primary reason these students are motivated to come here, especially considering the importance of having a degree of fluency in English when most employment opportunities lie within the tourism economy. English, in the words of Calder, is empowerment for these students. However, cultural exchange is also at the root of this program, and, of course, the differences in food culture have all four students laughing.
“It’s weird, in Brazil we eat rice and beans,” said Sousa.
“And meat and chicken,” added Amaral. “It’s just different. In Brazil we have something small for breakfast and something to drink, here it is eggs and bacon and pancakes, and everything.”
“But you should have acai here,” she added. “Acai is everything in Brazil.”
But, of course, cultural exchange extends beyond food, and there are certain hallmarks of American life, such as patriotism, that the students also want to learn about while they spend time with their host families.
“You believe your country has a future,” said Cardoso. “In Brazil it is not so much, because of corruption.”
“Brazil is dangerous,” added Sousa, “but we have a lot of good people.”
The “good people” are part of what drives Calder to keep providing these opportunities for students. They also embody a joie de vivre that Calder hopes can be inspiring to the people here who meet them.
“Brazilians know how to live. In the face of any challenges they know how to live,” said Calder. “They are always smiling, there is always music and dancing. They know how to have fun.”
“We are very positive and happy,” said Sousa, when asked what it means to be Brazilian. “We have problems, but we resolve them, and we are happy.”
“When we want to do anything, we do this thing,” said Silva, citing a sense of determination that is at the heart of national identity, and certainly demonstrated by himself and his peers.
“When we have things to do, we do them, we get them out of the way, so we can then enjoy life,” added Cardoso.
Helping them transition to camp and enjoy life at Hazen is an easy, natural step for camp director Kath Davies, who has watched the BRAYCE and Camp Hazen partnership unfold for twelve years now. The host families, though hosting for the first time, are equally committed to the values behind BRAYCE’s program.
“We’re such an international community with our staff, so to have kids from another country, it’s just part of what we do. A lot of kids call Hazen their second home, we obviously want to make sure that we spend a little bit more time with them in terms of making sure they are understanding the schedule and the directions and that the food is okay, because we have people from all over and they do have very different diets, and sleep schedules are different all over the world and that kind of stuff,” said Davies. “But for the most part, it’s a culture shock to everyone to come to camp for the first time, so it’s just a different sort of culture shock for international kids. We’ve had some great kids who have come through, who have gone on to the LEA program and then become staff, it just fits in so well for us. We’ve had folks who have come back and gone on to study at university here, and then been able to go back and help even more at home, so it’s just very cool. It’s been a natural partnership from the beginning.”
“I love the idea of exchange, it’s an opportunity to share what we know and have them share what they know” said Michelle Paulsen. “It’s always fun to show somebody your home and what we do, with someone who really wants to learn and understand and know what we do.”
“As a child growing up my parents always had exchange students, people from all different backgrounds, so it was an experience. I’m a teacher, and I spend a lot of time around high school students, and I think that a lot of them have a perception that everybody grows up like they do, that their experience is what everybody has,” said Karen Kaestle. “An opportunity like this is to realize, you know, there is a great big wide world out there, and there’s a lot of interesting exciting people and a lot of different cultures. I hope that will inspire my son to go out and learn more.”
“What always strikes me is I often wonder as a young person growing up in a place like Brazil, how do they feel when they look out and they don’t feel like they have a lot of opportunities, that there may not be those opportunities for education, that there may not be those opportunities to advance,” continued Kaestle. “You see that not just in Brazil, you see that all over the world. And I think that’s something that students in this country don’t experience, at least not to that level.”
“Our culture, American culture, definitely puts that out there, that there is something out there if you reach out for it, if you find that person you can make a connection to better yourself,” added Paulson. “I don’t know if that’s the case in a lot of other countries, that children growing up in those places understand that it is there, it is possible, you just have to find that way and hopefully an adult in your life will help you do that.”
“In many respects that’s what BRAYCE does for these kids,” said Kaestle. “It provides them this window of opportunity, it opens a door and says, you don’t have to stay where you are.”
“Or, you don’t have to accept what’s happening,” said Paulson. “You can be a young person, learn what you can in another country, and maybe bring that back to the community.”
Helping create opportunities for students who don’t have access to them is something that runs in the family for Calder. Though they themselves might not have had much, when growing up, her family still did what they could to help three students who had even less achieve goals of higher education—one even became a rocket scientist.
“For me, it wasn’t a matter of if I would do this, but when,” said Calder. “And my husband hadn’t had the same experience that I had had, but he was a very altruistic man. He had been on the board of Hazen for some time, and he thought, there are so many opportunities here for children to learn if we could bring some children from the favelas here. That’s how it started; we really cared, we had a passion, and we felt we could do it.”
“We had so many people say why Brazil, there are so many people here who need help,” said Calder. “I said, because there are so many people here already doing it and doing it well. We can do something to help kids in Brazil; does it really matter where they came from? The important thing is to provide opportunities and to improve kids’ lives, so does it really matter? So, nobody asks us that question anymore.”
When asked what they get from the experience, Calder said “You know, it’s interesting, they go back, and they totally accept that they go back into their life, but they take something inside which is the realization and the confidence that they do have some worth, and that if they really work hard, they can be whatever they want to be, and that’s what they get from this camp.”
“You’d think they’d be overwhelmed by the experience, because it’s so different,” continued Calder. “They take back with them everything they’ve learned, and the main thing is confidence, and of course they improve their English—but they risk, they dare, they do, they experiment, they try, all sorts of things that they never dreamed was possible. This makes them feel confident that they have a future, that they have self-worth, and can set goals and make them happen.”
Calder mostly hopes that more people will learn about the organization and the kids they help, and decide to volunteer in some way. Since her husband passed away in 2015, she’s been the sole president, and she needs help—whether it’s high schoolers looking for an internship, people to help with the day-to-day operations, or those who want to get involved with raising awareness about BRAYCE within the community. She especially hopes more families will be willing to volunteer to host.
“It can help to have kids who are of similar age, but the most important thing is to have families who appreciate that these kids need to have a good positive experience, do things, experience American life,” said Calder. “The host family week is very stabilizing for these kids, they see this how families really live—not waking up to machine gun fire, we don’t have to stay inside all day because it’s not safe.”
The number of students each year varies, depending on both how many appropriate candidates apply, and how much funding BRAYCE can raise. The organization holds one annual fundraiser where the exchange students meet the donors and vice-versa. They also depend on “friend-raisers,” events held in an individual’s home where the host invites some guests and a representative from BRAYCE talks about the organization, to get the word out to more people.
“I’d like more people in the community to understand how they live down there, and how important it is to reach out to them, whether as a host family or get involved in BRAYCE in some way,” said Calder. “Helping, reaching out to other places is very transformational. I just want people to know what’s going on.”
“I just hope that people in the community will open their homes and their hearts to these youngsters from Brazil,” added Calder.
For more information on the organization, or to get involved, visit www.brayce.org. Information and tickets for the annual fundraiser can be found there, as well. The West Side Story-themed event will take place at the Ivoryton Playhouse Terrace on July 12 at 6 p.m.; tickets are $75.